Tim Wigmore assesses the progress of the nations all vying for a place in the next global tournament in England
Tim Wigmore on the battle for 2019 World Cup places
The welcome returns of Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis leave Zimbabwe cricket stronger than for many years. A side hollowed out by a combination of the appalling political situation in the country, terrible mismanagement from their own board and the lack of equity – of fixtures or revenue – in the structure of the international game can now glimpse a more optimistic future. In July, Zimbabwe toppled Sri Lanka 3-2 away in a landmark one-day international series victory.
Now, their ambitions are to qualify for the 2019 World Cup in England. Dubiously, the qualification tournament is poised to be held in Zimbabwe in March – for classic reasons of politicking (giving Zimbabwe the greatest chance of qualification) over sporting merit (duplicating the conditions that will actually be used in the World Cup itself).
Yet the qualifiers still loom as a compelling tournament. In a world of unending, tedious five-match bilateral ODI series, the World Cup qualifiers will be a welcome antidote: a cutthroat tournament brimming with context, in which every match matters.
It is expected – although, ludicrously, the format has not yet been confirmed – that the field of ten will be divided up into two groups of five, with the top three from each group then advancing to the Super Six stage. Then, the top two teams will reach the World Cup, and play in the final of the qualifiers.
What we do know is a cut-throat and brutal tournament awaits. To be sure of reaching the World Cup, sides will have to win six of their seven games across the group stages and the Super Sixes.
No resting of players here; every match will be imbued with jeopardy, containing huge consequences for victory and defeat - not merely the ultimate prize of World Cup qualification, but also huge disparities in funding, which could determine whether some Associate countries can continue to afford professional contracts, and ODI status for the next four years.
Who looks best-placed to make it? The West Indies, with returnees Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels, are clearly favourites.
Should Sunil Narine return to the ODI team too, as expected, it will give the West Indies a priceless edge on Zimbabwean pitches that offer turn - and, as pitches are likely to be reused several times, will probably take more turn later on in the qualifiers.
Yet even the West Indies will not be accustomed to playing so many high stakes matches in a row, in which defeat is unthinkable – very different to the World Twenty20 knockout stages when, for all the glory of victory, defeat will not cause lasting harm to a nation’s cricket.
Zimbabwe, with the returnees of their own and the astute coaching of Heath Streak, should probably now be considered narrow second favourites, especially with the boon of home conditions.
Not that Afghanistan will have any qualms about playing in Zimbabwe. They have played three ODI series there, drawing 2-2 (from 2-0 down) in 2014, winning 3-2 in 2015 and then doing so again earlier this year. Rashid Khan enjoyed an extraordinary series then, and followed it up with 7-19 in an ODI victory in the West Indies in June.
He is supported by a wonderfully varies bowling attack, and batting that, if still comparatively weaker, is gaining maturity and depth.
And what lies beyond? Three other nations have realistic chances of qualification, the European trio of Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands. Ireland’s team has declined just as they have received Full Member status, but theirs remains a battlehardened team accustomed to dominating Associates in ODIs.
A top order batting line-up of Ed Joyce, Paul Stirling, William Porterfield and Andy Balbirnie would expect to score copious runs, with Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin a fine new ball pair, providing both are fit.
Scotland served notice of their rise by beating Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in 50-over matches this summer. They have a well-balanced team, with Sussex’s Stu Whittingham and Hampshire’s Brad Wheal providing cutting edge, but are perhaps overdependent on Kyle Coetzer’s runs; then again, Coetzer scored three centuries in their six one-day matches last summer.
Most intriguing is the Netherlands. Since taking over as coach this year Ryan Campbell has helped secure them an increased volume of fixtures. They have a fine bowling attack - Paul van Meekeren and Tim van der Gugten as opening bowlers, and then a pair of left-arm spinners, Roloef van der Merwe and the legspinner Michael Rippon, to follow. The batting is less reliable.
But Campbell hopes to be able to include Tom Cooper, the South Australia batsman, and potentially even Ryan ten Doeschate too. If those players are indeed recalled, the Dutch would have a team capable of reaching the World Cup.
For all these caveats, here is a longrange estimate of each team’s chances: West Indies, 75%; Zimbabwe 45%; Afghanistan 40%; Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands, 12% each; the other four teams 1% each.
It all emphasises the insanity of the World Cup contracting to ten nations - at exactly the moment when world cricket has more depth than ever before.
Football fans may berate how their World Cup is being undermined by expansion to 48 teams — but too many sides in a World Cup is infinitely preferable to the exclusionary and elitist approach favoured by the cricketing powers at be.
Battle: Brendan Taylor of Zimbabwe bats during the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup match between India and Zimbabwe